Representation: The Missing Backbone Of A Stellar Arts Education
If you think back to your elementary school, middle school, or high school arts education, I bet that we all have something in common. When you were taught about “capital-A Art” it was through people like Van Gogh, Picasso, Michelangelo, or Da Vinci. If you were lucky, maybe someone showed you Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait.
But what does this one-size-fits-all art education really teach us? Almost surely, we conceptualize art as for and by the rich, the white, the male, the European. Art becomes a thing which has already been done, and anyway, probably couldn’t be done by us.
Why Students Drop Out Of Art
Elitism is probably the number one way students are shut out of an interest in or passion for art. It’s an enduring problem in the way that art education is structured, and has to do with a whole host of social dynamics and ills. Who gets written about, remembered, and taught when it comes to art history is a battle that has been fought since the Second Wave Feminism of the 1970s and which is still very much raging today.
Whole movements, styles, and countries are left out of mainstream art education, and it’s to everyone’s detriment. Art history, the way it is largely taught today, is boring.
There, I said it. And I mean it. How many times can we hear about Vincent Van Gogh’s ear in an art class? There are so many other interesting art stories out there, so many relevant artists with so much to say. Especially if you’re learning in a city like Chicago, arguably one of the greatest art cities in the world.
At IPaintMyMind, we believe that we need to support, learn from, connect with, and purchase art from artists who are living and working in our communities today!
It feels totally inadequate to contemplate an art education that doesn’t engage with local art and especially artists with marginalized identities who have worked and do work in Chicago. We are host to some of the best dynamic and socially conscious art institutions in the country, like the Hyde Park Arts Center, the Stony Island Arts Bank, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and so many other smaller community art spaces.
Chicago Public School students are almost 90% nonwhite, and over 75% low income. A traditional arts education within CPS is not only out of date and out of touch, but actively alienating and othering. It disconnects the lived experience of students from their appreciation of art and the creation of it.
Why Representation In Art Education Matters
That’s why IPaintMyMind chooses to focus so heavily on representation in our Art Guide for Art Teachers curriculum tool, available as part of our Shared Walls™ program. (Also available as a standalone resource for purchase!) Representation is a powerful catalyst for artistic involvement, and helps to shift the paradigm of art education.
Our customizable curriculum is built to revolve around the idea that great art education has to focus on the community it is serving.
Introducing artists that are contemporary, nonwhite, queer, differently abled, or any number of other traditionally marginalized identities, redefines the scope of art and what art can do. That’s why we think it’s important to stress the power, political and otherwise, of representation in art.
Art has always been a horizon of possibility, where traditional power structures don’t have to hold, and people with limited political power can speak freely. When voices are suppressed in art education and art history, the radically democratic and equitable nature of art is obscured.
At IPMM, we have a fantastic community of artists from all over the country and the world in our Permanent Collection. As each school enrolls in our Shared Walls program, we choose one artist whose work will be featured at the school’s IPMM Art Gallery.
Our artists span a diverse range of styles, mediums, backgrounds, and subject matter. We like to get to know each school and their student body before we pick an artist that is right for them. The school receives a 12-20 piece Art Gallery which will hang on their walls all year!
Experience, Reflect, Create
Our Art Guide (all three versions!) revolve around three phases, or pillars: experience, reflect, create. This all flows from the importance that we place on representation. In the Experience phase, students sit with the work, identifying mood, atmosphere, and visual qualities. Visual connotations may arise and preliminary ideas about the work are formed.
In the Reflect stage, students learn about the artist, the historical context, and the social movements that produced the art. This helps solidify ideas about the meaning of the work, its significance, and the intention of the artist.
In the final Create phase, students use what they have learned to create original art. This ranges from techniques, to certain ways of expressing narratives or experience, all the way to just being activated by the artist. We know that seeing art and learning about artists that come from familiar backgrounds can be an explosive creative catalyst for students. It was for each of us at IPMM!
I remember the first art class I took that veered away from the traditional subject matter. It changed my understanding of art and led to my lifelong involvement with it. It empowered me to try new things and to reach outside of what I knew. We want to bring experience to every student that we can, and to change the way that we, as a society, look at art education.
Sometimes Seeing Is Believing
What does it mean to finally be able to access equitable and representative art education? For a whole lot of students, it means finally feeling included and catered to. And it’s impossible to overstate what opportunities that could make available and what doors it could open.
If you want to learn more about our Arts Education Curriculum and Resources Guide, check out this article for a deep dive.
And learn more about how we work with Community Partners like public schools, private schools, youth centers, libraries, parks, and more.
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